The investigators who conduct background checks on prospective government hires requiring a security clearance—like the one National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden had—are supposed to cast a wide net. They comb through an applicant’s credit reports and court records and interview family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, old bosses, and ex-spouses in search of any incriminating detail that might put state secrets at risk.
But what if these screeners are themselves ethically challenged? Turns out some investigators are faking reports, making them look far more thorough than they actually are. Former investigator Kayla Smith submitted 1,600 phony credit reports over an 18-month period, according to the inspector general for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees 95 percent of the government’s background checks. Another vettor, Ramon Davila, filed reports claiming he’d interviewed people he’d never spoken to and obtained records he’d never seen, federal court records show. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a third, Anthony Domico, claimed to have interviewed someone who’d been dead for more than a decade.
Davila pleaded guilty to federal charges of making false statements and will be sentenced in September. Domico pleaded guilty in 2010; he got five months in prison and had to pay $69,611 in restitution to OPM. Smith pleaded guilty in 2009, received three years probation, and was ordered to pay $99,600 in restitution. Attempts to reach the three by phone were unsuccessful.
Since 2006, 20 investigators—half of whom worked for private contractors—have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to charges of fraudulently manipulating documents. Those are just the fraudsters the government has found out about. Patrick McFarland, OPM’s inspector general, told senators at a hearing in late June that fraud may be more widespread than anybody realizes. “I don’t believe that we’ve caught it all by any stretch,” he said.
Washington began outsourcing the security screening in 1996, when it turned to a company now called USIS, which was staffed with workers who once conducted background checks for the government. After Sept. 11, OPM transferred even more of the business to the private sector to keep up with the rising demand for intelligence personnel. Last year about 6,800 contract workers and 2,500 federal employees conducted more than 2 million investigations.
The pressure to meet demand while complying with orders from Congress and the Director of National Intelligence to complete most investigations within several months’ time has created problems. “Caseloads, especially for contract investigators, are extremely large,” says Evan Lesser, managing director of ClearanceJobs.com, a search firm. These companies also face strict government deadlines, and “if that company doesn’t deliver they can lose their contract,” Lesser adds.
USIS has both benefited from the growth in outsourcing and come under scrutiny because of it. The company is Washington’s top provider of background checks, handling about 45 percent of the reviews the government contracts out. It’s done $253 million in work for OPM so far this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The inspector general reported that eight of the 20 background investigators found to have faked paperwork since 2006 worked for USIS, which also vetted Snowden. Michelle Schmitz, assistant IG for investigations, says the agency has been investigating the company since late 2011. USIS declined to comment.
McFarland’s office has a backlog of 36 fraud cases it wants to investigate but doesn’t have the resources. That’s prompted Senators Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, to introduce legislation setting aside money for a broader probe into the vetting process.
The effort could turn up “considerably more” botched investigations, says McFarland. “Investigators are overworked, they don’t always feel they are compensated fairly, and there is a lot of pressure put on them,” says Larry Allen, a consultant who advises federal contractors. Given all that, he says, “ultimately, some people”—like Snowden—“slip through the cracks.”